Everyone has heard of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, queen of the White House and then wife of a Greek Shipping magnate. Basically, she was the nearest thing to Royalty that America has ever produced. However, before making some very good marriages, Jacqueline was originally from a very well known family, the Bouvier Beale’s of East Hampton, New York. Not everyone in the family was as lucky as Jacqueline however and in 1976, a documentary was made about the lives of two other members of the family and this forms the background to the Scott Frankel/Doug Wright musical Grey Gardens at Southwark Playhouse.
The first act is set in 1941, when the Bouvier’s are at their brightest, on the day that the engagement is due to be announced between Little Edie (Rachel Anne Rayham) and the politically ambitious Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr (Aaron Sidwell). Grey Gardens is presided over by Big Edith (Jenna Russell) and the family butler/saviour Brooks (Ako Mitchell). As well as organising everything for her daughter’s big day, Edith cannot let the biggest party of the season go by without her ‘professional’ input and so she and her live-in (but not in the biblical sense) composer/pianist George Gould Strong (Jeremy Legat) have been working on a musical programme to entertain the guests, much to the dread of her daughter and her father J.V. Major Bouvier (Billy Boyle). Apart from Big Edith and George, the only others that seem to be looking forward to the musical rendition are Edith’s two young and mischievous nieces Jacqueline (Grace Jenkins/Eleanor Waldron) and Lee Bouvier (Alan Hinge/Rebecca Nardin). The stage is et for a wonderful – if maybe a little tense – family event and the only piece missing is Edith’s husband Phelan to arrive from his downtown office.
Moving forward to 1973, and everyone has left. The house is in major disrepair and the only inhabitants are Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale (Sheila Hancock), Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale (Jenna Russell) and every stray cat from the neighbourhood. It could be suggested that the two of them have rather lost the plot by this point in their lives but with the help of handyman Jerry (Aaron sidwell) and gardener Brooks Jr (Ako Mitchell) their lives seem to rattle along.
Grey Gardens is very unusual in, not only being the first production to be based on a documentary but, whilst the second act follows the original film very closely, the first act is entirely fictitious and is used to give the audience a sense of how Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale have ended up living their reclusive lives together in their dilapidated old family home. I have to say that, for me, this approach really worked well. Having never seen the documentary, I would have been at a complete loss to understand anything that was occuring if I had only seen Act II. As it was, by the time the second act started – with a really superb rendition of ‘The Revolutionary Costume for Today’ – I felt I knew these two ladies very well and could appreciate the relationship they had between them – one of love and resentment in equal measure.
Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell deliver a truly fantastic and heartwarming performance as the mother and daughter ‘chained’ together in the old house. They argue, they bicker, they have amazing hissy fits and in short show all of the characteristics of two people that have been together for all the wrong reasons for way too long. But underlying the arguments – and the superb bitchy put-downs that Big Edie throws at her daughter – there is an obvious affection between the two of them that isn’t just the result of being related by blood. Both actresses achieve this with a wonderful subtly that suggests they really have been together a very, very long time and have a complete trust in each other’s performance. Given the power of the two leads, it would be easy for the rest of the cast to be overlooked but you would do so at your peril. Rachel Anne Rayham and Aaron Sidwell in particular are brilliant in their respective roles, particularly in the first act where you get the impression these two are planning to get married for all the wrong reasons.
So, all in all, Grey Gardens has proved to be a great start to 2016’s theatrical year. A fascinating and well written story delivered with panache by a highly talented cast lead by two truly awesome leading ladies who give their all to bring the two heroines completely to life, if there is any justice in the world then someone will be getting ready for the transfer to the West End soon
Review by Terry Eastham
Based on the iconic film, Grey Gardens tells the spectacular real life rise and fall of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and cousin, Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale.
Starting in 1941 at an engagement party at Grey Gardens, the Bouvier’s mansion in East Hampton, Long Island, the musical tracks the progression of the two women’s lives from American aristocrats to reclusive social outcasts living in such squalid conditions, in a home overrun by cats, that the Health Department deemed the mansion ‘unfit for human habitation’.
Winner of 3 Tony awards and nominated for a further 7, along with 12 Drama Desk awards on Broadway, Grey Gardens finally gets its European première in London from the multi award winning team behind Grand Hotel, Titanic, Parade and Mack & Mabel.
Cast: Sheila Hancock, Jenna Russell, with Billy Boyle, Jeremy Legat, Ako Sidwell, Rachel Anne Rayham, Aaron Sidwell and Alana Hinge, Grace Jenkins, Rebecca Nardin, Eleanor Waldron.
Director – Thom Southerland
Musical Supervisor – Simon Lee
Musical Director – Michael Bradley
Choreographer – Lee Proud
Set Designer – Tom Rogers
Costume Designer – Jonathan Hudson
Lighting Designer – Howard Hudson
Sound Designer – Andrew Johnson
77-85 Newington Causeway
London, SE1 6BD
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Saturday 2 January – Saturday 6 February 2016